John Cassavetes’s directorial debut revolves around a romance in New York City between Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), a light- skinned black woman, and Tony (Anthony Ray), a white man. The relationship is put in jeopardy when Tony meets Lelia’s darker-skinned jazz singer brother, Hugh (Hugh Hurd), and discovers that her racial heritage is not what he thought it was. Shot on location in Manhattan with a mostly nonprofessional cast and crew, Shadows is a penetrating work that is widely considered the forerunner of the American independent film movement.
Criterion upgrades their previous DVD of John Cassavete’s Shadows to Blu-ray (the first disc in their Cassavetes box set) and present it on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
While it certainly offers a noticeably cleaner look in comparison to the original Criterion DVD I couldn’t detect much if any difference between Criterion’s Blu-ray and BFI’s, which shouldn’t be a shock since they apparently come from the same masters. Blacks can appear a bit faded in places but contrast looks acceptable with discerning gray levels. Detail and clarity is surprisingly high when the source allows and the films grain structure, which can vary from light to heavy throughout, at least looks natural without any rendering issues I could notice.
Most of the issues with the image are inherent in the source due to age or the manner in which the film was shot, which was with an incredibly low budget and off-the-cuff. The quality can fluctuate dramatically from shot to shot as well since it appears multiple sources were used, all in various degrees of condition. At worst damage is limited to some minor tram lines, marks and scratches, and frame jumps in places. The image can also look out of focus or at least soft in places, but I highly doubt this is an artifact of the transfer or mastering.
Like the BFI edition it looks good, only limited by the source. Artifacts aren’t an issue despite the fact this disc has packed a lot of material onto it (it includes the 3+ hour documentary A Constant Forge, but it’s clearly from a standard-def master and has been heavily compressed so it allows more room for the main feature to breathe) and the film even enjoys a healthy bitrate. It will never be reference quality, but what we get looks like a film and still offers a cleaner look in comparison to the Criterion DVD.
Similar to the BFI Blu-ray (and the Criterion DVD) the audio track found here—presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono—is limited again by the original source materials. The film was shot in a loose manner and with what I can only assume was cheap audio equipment, so audio can come off a bit edgy, flat, and hard to hear at times. The jazz score actually comes off fairly strong, probably because it was added during post production with better equipment, but dialogue can be muffled and hard to hear at times. Yet despite this and the face there is a bit of noise apparent in the background it does sound a lot cleaner and more free of damage than one may expect.
Nowhere near great but probably as good as it can ever get.
Most everything looks to have been carried over from the previous DVD editions, with the addition of A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes, a documentary on Cassavetes that was actually given its own disc in the DVD box set, as well as its own spine number (this of course means that the Blu-ray edition effectively loses spine #256.) I’ve always had my issues with this documentary and revisiting it is a bit of a chore. Though obviously a passion project by director Charles Kiselyak (clocking in at an astounding 200-minutes) it’s incredibly sentimental and very one-sided, with obnoxious narration by someone doing a brutal Cassavetes impersonation (I guess it’s supposed to be him narrating his life.) Amazingly, even at its length, it’s a pretty standard documentary covering his life and work, showing the hurdles he had to get through to get his films made and so on, but never really feels “in-depth”. There are plenty of interviews for sure, which are all wonderful as everyone fondly recalls the director and man. I enjoy listening to the former cast and his close friends talk about him and offer the praise, but this is probably part of the film’s overall problem: since everyone has nothing but good things to say (even scholars) it’s so one-sided and ultimately plays similar to most generic 20-minute featurettes you would find as an extra on most DVD/Blu-ray releases, where everyone talks about how wonderful everyone else is. In the end it’s a fluff piece, simple PR. And despite the fact there is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage (which is great!) there is actually very little technical information, which one would think could be covered in 200-minutes. It barely even mentions missteps or issues that arose, the most notable omission being the fact there is no sign of the much maligned (even by the Cassavetes himself) final film, Big Trouble. How could a 200-minute documentary just forget to mention this film? How? There is some decent material in here, which may make it worth skimming through, but it’s such an overlong disappointment I don’t think I can even give it a mild recommendation.
(For those concerned, the presentation looks to be an upscale of the original standard-definition transfer and at best looks to be top-line DVD quality. To help in conserving space for the main feature the documentary has been heavily compressed and takes up less room than the main feature on the disc.)
Continuing on two interviews are next found here, one with actress Lelia Goldoni and another with actor Seymour Cassel. Both are presented in widescreen and have been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Goldoni’s is the longer one, running about 12-minutes. She talks about moving to New York (for a gig that never happened) and how she came across Cassavetes acting workshop through an old high school friend. She would participate in the workshop and then suddenly found herself thrown into the film Shadows, which seems to have been realized during one class. She remembers the shooting fondly, and reminisces about the classes with Cassavetes. Cassel’s is unfortunately the shorter interview, lasting only 4 and-a-half minutes. Cassel simply talks about first meeting Cassavetes and getting sucked into helping with the making of the film, even doing various tasks as a member of the crew. Both are rather wonderful and worth viewing.
Workshop Footage presents over 4-minutes worth of silent footage from Cassavetes’ acting workshop and work on Shadows. It’s a shame its silent but after hearing about the work shop through various supplements on here and other DVDs in the Cassavetes box set it was nice to get some actual footage, even if it is short.
We then get a restoration demonstration, possibly my favourite supplement on here, which runs about 11-minutes. This is the same one that appeared on the DVD. It’s incredibly informative as we go through the process of restoring this film and everything that has to be considered, such as what debris should be left and what should be cleaned up. As well, we get a great flow chart on the process of restoring. Criterion’s restoration demonstrations are usually a collection of ?before? and ?after? shots, but this one turns into a real educational experience about all that has to be considered when restoring a film.
The disc then closes with a couple of standards, including a stills gallery with photos from the workshop, the filming and premiere of Shadows, as well as photos from the score recording session and then posters from around the world for Cassavetes’ films. A 3-minute theatrical trailer closes off the disc.
Unfortunately the alternate version of the film, an original cut that Cassavetes felt was too “arty” and was more concerned with camera technique, is nowhere to be found on here. Long considered lost the alternate version of the film was found and fell into the hands of Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney. To my understanding he wanted to include this version on the original DVD release but Cassavetes’ widow, actress Gena Rowlands, objected to this and the whole thing exploded into a mess where Carney was removed from the project after helping Criterion with it for months (find more info here and here.) It would have been an interesting feature and it’s a bit of a shame that it was decided not to include it. The fact it isn’t even mentioned, except for in the booklet included with the whole box set, is also disappointing. Also I’m surprised that an audio commentary recorded by Seymour Cassel and film critic Tom Charity didn’t make it on here, which appears on BFI’s edition. As to why Criterion didn’t include it here seems a bit odd since it was actually a good track. But for those interested in it they should be happy to know the BFI Blu-ray is actually region free.
So in the end it’s not the release it could have been but at least the few features here (forgetting the disappointing and bloated documentary) are worth viewing.
The supplements are still worthwhile, though I wouldn’t have been too sad if Criterion didn’t carry over A Constant Forge, a 200-minute fluff piece with surprisingly little depth. Transfer wise it’s similar to BFI’s and like it offers a noticeable improvement over Criterion’s previous DVD. In all a nice upgrade.